Obama Needs to Win Over Reagan Democrats

He can get their votes by persuading them he can improve the economy.

U.S. Democratic Presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and U.S. Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden stand together on day three of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) at the Pepsi Center.

Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden stand together on day three of the DNC.

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DENVER—Barack Obama faces a big challenge in trying to win over Reagan Democrats this fall, and he needs to address their concerns as soon as possible, says Stan Greenberg, a former senior strategist for President Bill Clinton.

On the other hand, Greenberg says young people still have a positive image of Obama while Republican candidate John McCain's image among such voters is worsening. This is a good sign for Obama because the Democratic presidential candidate is counting on a huge turnout by young people to restructure the electorate and boost his chances for victory in November. The massive turnout of Democrats in the primaries also suggests that Obama will benefit from a similar level of enthusiasm among party members in the fall.

But what matters most this year are the Reagan Democrats—shorthand for older, non-college-educated, blue-collar whites who supported Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and their contemporary counterparts who often vote on the basis of traditional values such as patriotism and a strong national defense, according to Greenberg.

He says that Obama is "under-performing" among these Reagan Democrats compared to the rising fortunes of the Democratic Party.

Obama needs to come up with a "whole conversation" aimed at them, Greenberg says. He adds that Michelle Obama's speech to the Democratic National Convention this week appeared to be part of that effort as she argued that she and her husband have backgrounds similar to that of the Reagan Democrats, with an emphasis on the work ethic and overcoming adversity

What the Reagan Democrats want, Greenberg argues, is reassurance that Obama will work for all Americans and not just African-Americans; that he is passionate about changing the economy to benefit working people; and that he is deeply patriotic and loves his country. "He's got to be a defender of the country" and show some passion about it, the pollster argues.

A big problem for Obama is the lingering negative effects of his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor in Chicago. The extensive news coverage of Wright's anti-American and anti-white comments, captured on video, badly hurt Obama among working-class white voters.

Yet Reagan Democrats are in such economic distress that they might support Obama if he can persuade them that he would improve the economy. "These people are angry," Greenberg says. "They are desperate." Such voters want to know that Obama will fight hard for them. But Obama doesn't appear to be comfortable as a "populist warrior" and "he appears to not be willing to be something he is not," the pollster says.

More broadly, Greenberg says that Americans turned against the Republicans in the 2006 election because of dissatisfaction with President Bush's handling of the Iraq war, anxiety about the economy, and a sense that things were going wrong in Washington and the country. "Two-thousand-and-six was the earthquake, and it's moved beyond," he says.